A big component of long term space travel will be the ability to adequately feed the crew. This means that astronauts will be responsible for growing their own produce in space, but first we need to build on what we’ve discovered about plant growth from the International Space Station to grow plants under extreme conditions in space. This will have significant implications for longterm visits to other planetary bodies like the moon and Mars.
NASA’s Lunar Plant Growth Habitat is similar to a miniaturized greenhouse. A sealed container the size of a coffee can will contain soil (from Earth), nutrients, water, and air to germinate the seeds. Rather than use artificial grow lamps, the plants will use natural sunlight. These habitats will not be able to sustain full-grown plants, but they will determine if it is possible for the seeds to germinate in partial gravity under extremely controlled conditions while accounting for the radiation that could affect growth.
The experiment will use a combination of basil, sunflower, turnip, and arabidopsis seeds. These seeds were chosen based on their hardiness and quick germination times. Cameras inside the habitat will document the plant growth, while a variety of sensors will monitor water levels and temperature.
Does it seem like a waste to launch a mission to the moon just to deposit a coffee can-sized habitat? NASA thinks so. In 2015, the winner of the Google Lunar X Prize competition will bring the habitat with it, making this mission extremely budget-friendly for NASA. Between the years of research, development, public relations, and the mission itself, it will end up costing the agency less than $2 million.
In true NASA fashion, there will be considerable community outreach for this experiment. Across the United States, K-12 classrooms will be able to design, build, and evaluate plant habitats of their own. NASA has developed detailed age-appropriate lesson plans to help guide teachers through the process. This isn’t just a fun way to get students involved; it’s actually helping out NASA as well. Rather than have NASA replicate control experiments on their own, the students will become actual citizen scientists and will crowdsource the control data. After the experiment, students will receive a certificate of completion from NASA.